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God’s Law and The Pagan Heart

It can’t be wrong, / When it feels so right.

—sexual predator Joseph Brooks, “You Light up My Life” (1977)


Government is not based on special revelation, such as the Bible.

—Norman Geisler in Living Ethically in the 90s (1990)

All Things New

Ten CommandmentsAs the prophets looked forward to the Messianic age, they saw a new world order.  This new order would include a New Covenant, a new heaven and earth, and new hearts for God’s people.  Messiah would pour out the Spirit of God in abundance.  The nations would believe God’s promises, embrace His law, and flood into His holy community—a renewed Jerusalem—to worship (Isa. 2).  Civil justice, prosperity, and peace would envelop the world (Isa. 11; 60; 65; Ps. 72).

The New Testament, looking back on the older order, says that this New Covenant order is at many points “better”—that’s the word the writer of Hebrews keeps using.  The New Covenant represents a “better hope”; it’s established on “better promises” and a “better” sacrifice.  It provides us with a “better country” and, in heaven, a “better and an enduring substance (Heb. 7:19; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:16).

What it doesn’t include is a better law.

The Law in the Prophets

There is nothing in the prophets to suggest that Messiah would introduce a new law or some new standard of morality.  They did see dimly that the ceremonial externals of the older covenants would give way to something better.  Jeremiah said that one day the Ark of the Covenant would no longer play any part in the worship of God’s people (Jer. 3:16).  Isaiah said that God would take Levites and priests from among the Gentiles (Isa. 66:18-21).  Malachi saw incense and tribute offerings ascending to God from every land, not just Israel (Mal. 1:11).  And Amos spoke, not of a restored Temple, but of the restoration of the Tabernacle of David, a much simpler arrangement (Amos 9:11).  In fact, the endless repetition of the Temple sacrifices and the inevitable death of each high priest already pointed to the need of a perfect sacrifice and an eternal High Priest (Heb. 10).

But with regard to God’s moral precepts, there is no such concession anywhere in the prophets.  Quite the contrary.  “Thy word is true from the beginning:  and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever” (Ps. 119:160).  The prophets didn’t see the nations awakening to a new law, but embracing God’s abiding law.  For example, in the latter days, the days of Messiah . . .

And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem (Mic. 4:2; cf. Isa. 2:2-3).

Jeremiah and Ezekiel are very clear about this.  The new age, the new world order, will be the day when God, through His Spirit, writes His law upon the hearts of His people.

But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jer. 31:33).

Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.  A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.  And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. (Ezek. 36:25-27; cf. 11:19-20).

The new heart is the heart in which sin and self have been Spiritually overwritten with the law of God.

The Work of the Law

But didn’t the Gentiles already know God’s law?  As the image of God, as rational creatures with intellectual access to the law of nature, didn’t they already know God’s standard of right and wrong?  The answer is yes and no.  Paul writes this:

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:  which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another (Rom. 2:14-15).

Paul is careful in his choice of words.  He doesn’t say “the law written in their hearts,” but “the work of the law.”  In his mind there is a distinction between the effect of general revelation and that of the Spirit-empowered gospel.  The work of the law, Matthew Henry says, is “that work which the law commands us to do.” All men are faced with revelation of God’s lawful demands upon themselves and their culture, but until they come to Christ, they are at war with that ethical revelation.   They hold it—hold it down or suppress it—in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18).  Cornelius Van Til writes:

Their own make-up as image-bearers of God tells them, as it were, in the imperative voice, that they must act as such.  All of God’s revelation to man is law to man. But here we deal with man’s response as an ethical being to this revelation of God.  All men, says Paul, to some extent, do the works of the law.  He says that they have the works of the law written in their hearts.  Without a true motive, without a true purpose, they may still do that which externally appears as acts of obedience to God’s law.  God continues to press his demands upon man, and man is good “after a fashion” just as he knows “after a fashion” (105).

And so the Gentiles retained a sense of morality, of good and evil.  “They did by nature the things contained in the law. They had a sense of justice and equity, honour and purity, love and charity; the light of nature taught obedience to parents, pity to the miserable, conservation of public peace and order, forbade murder, stealing, lying, perjury, etc. Thus they were a law unto themselves.”  So writes Matthew Henry.  But he goes on to describe this “law of nature” in the hearts of unbelievers as “corrupted, defaced, and imprisoned in unrighteousness.”  And so the Gentile, the man without Scripture, knows that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and he may even be close to the mark in some of his convictions and practices.  But his understanding is darkened, his wisdom is foolishness, and his motivations are idolatrous (Rom. 1:21ff).  He doesn’t seek the glory of God.

In concrete terms, the man without Scripture may condemn murder, but approve of abortion and euthanasia.   He may give lip service to marriage, but vote for the legalization of polygamy and prostitution.  He may frown on theft, but call for the civil government to redistribute wealth in the name of social justice.  He may even acknowledge that “God” ought to be worshipped and then cast his infant child into the flaming belly of an idol.  And he may do all of this without a shred of hypocrisy or insincerity.

So, far from being a pristine and serviceable revelation of God’s will for men and nations, the ethical standards that rise out of the unregenerate heart are actually darkened, corrupt, and generally unreliable.  The man who trusts his own heart is a fool (Prov. 28:26).  Knowing this full well, Isaiah wrote that Gentile islands and coastlands would wait for Messiah’s law (Isa. 42:4).


Scripture teaches all men are face to face with God’s moral law in their very hearts and that every man is therefore accountable to God now and on the Day of Judgment.  Scripture also teaches that the work of the law allows men to do many things that are outwardly and relatively good.  Scripture does not teach that the unregenerate can develop a legal code that matches the clarity, purity, justice, or mercy of the law of God revealed in Scripture (Deut. 4:8).  Nor does it teach that God actually expects the nations to be content with their own distorted version of God’s law (Isa. 42:4).  The Great Commission says exactly the opposite (Matt. 28:18-19).  God calls all men everywhere to repent.  Christ tells the Church to teach the nations all of His commandments.

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